ZITABL & AURA: a unique creative tandem of contemporary art of Kazakhstan

This blog is about a very unusual family of a modern Kazakh artist, writer and journalist, Zitta Sultanbayeva, who is the soul and inspiration behind the creative works by ZITABL & AURA



Zitta Sultanbayeva

Zitta Sultanbayeva is an artist, poet, journalist and art critic; a very talented person who has the ability to process and respond to life’s events in her own philosophical and imaginative way. I came across Zitta’s work via Facebook.  Zitta’s posts caught my attention with her insightful excurses into Kazakhstan’s art and culture.

She cherishes Kazakhstan’s cultural past and reminds us about its classical beauty by bringing out some rare old photographs, archival treasures, and bio-sketches of giants whose work established a golden cultural heritage fund of the Nation.  She actively seeks new forms and shapes to express her individual interpretation and responses to reality, frequently accompanied by her poetic description.

Zitta’s insatiable interest in art and creative writing began during her happy carefree childhood in Alma-Ata (now Almaty), the cultural hub of Kazakhstan. Since her early years, she immersed herself in the world of books and art.  She grew up in a very artistic family and subsequently participated in a social circle which included local famous artists and sculptors.  These circumstances had a profound effect on Zitta’s choices and interests in life.  With time, she expanded her knowledge of poetry, literature and arts and found greater levels of determination and focus on achieving her goals. Zitta’s passion for arts and writing enabled her to establish her own creative style which with the passage of time became more mature and sophisticated.



In her recent book, Art Atmosphere of Alma-Ata, published in 2016, Zitta explains the years when she received her first lessons in ‘warm’ and ‘cold’ colours and the art of composition from her aunt-cousin, a brilliant artist and actress, Gulfayrus Ismailova.  Quite clearly, Zitta cherishes the time she spent with Gulfayrus, in essence, the strong foundation for Zitta’s personal development and creative vision. There is the whole section of her book dedicated to Gulfayrus Ismailova.

After graduation from the State Art College in Almaty, Zitta embarked on a newly-founded training course, at the Script Department of the Kazakh-Film studio.  It was her dream to continue her studies at VGIK, a famous All-Union State Institute of Cinematography in Moscow.   At the Kazakh-Film Studio, she followed a course on film studies and film critic, together with a well-known screen-writer Margarita Solovyova and Malik Yakshimbetov, Film Director together with a renowned Lecturer on the History of Art, Pavel Salzman.  In the mid-1980s, Zitta enrolled at the Almaty Institute of Drama and Art to study Manufacturing Graphics.   During her Studies, she got influenced by intellectual ideas of Nazipa Yezhenova, the History of Arts Lecturer, who invited Zitta to join a group led by a prominent architect and artist, Rustam Khalfin. Here she met Alexander Brener, a controversial writer and artist. All these interactions were to be a significant influence on the formation of Zitta’s aesthetic preferences, during her later career.

Glasnost’’ and ‘Perestroika’ of the 1980s shook the Society’s stagnated routines and triggered a re-evaluation of old values and knowledge and then, new challenges and hopes.  The art scene of Almaty, as explained in Zitta’s book, went through a substantial change in the desperate pursuit of catching up with the new wave of contemporary art. Influenced by new trends and encouraged by visiting art experts and contemporary artists from overseas, local artists started experimenting with new forms of visual expression trying to ‘marry’ traditional forms with technical forms, photo, and video-art. This new trend resulted in a whole new vocabulary, not only in the technical field of Art but also in its conceptual and visionary perspective.


In 1990, Zitta met her husband, a freelance artist, photographer and musician Ablikim Akmullaev. In 2000, their marriage became a contemporary art duo, called ZITABL: ‘ZIT’ corresponds with Zitta’s name whereas ‘ABL’ corresponds with Ablikim’s name. ZITABL has developed its own distinctive style and a conceptual framework. In the course of 18 years, ZITABL has built a significant portfolio of artwork, installations and exhibitions, including: Asian Runway (2000), Miss Asia (2002), Gods and Marionettes (2003), Egg-headed on the Time Belt – From the Collective Past to the Individual Present (2008), and Akhyr Zaman (2014/2015). Both husband and wife have exhibited their work in a number of leading art galleries and exhibitions in the post-soviet space and abroad and won a number of awards in international contemporary art contests.

Installation Miss Asia (2002) was one of the first forms of visual protest against the potential deployment of American military bases in Kazakhstan.


A combination of a video-installation with the powerful verses by Zitta had been used to address the issue of a national dignity and pride. It is built on contrasting the images of mountains, tall green fir-trees, blue skies, and bright flowers on the one hand, and a man in a military uniform pushing a young Asian woman submissively sitting in a wheelchair and looking at us with a sad face, on the other hand.

A powerful poetic text cautions about a danger of losing Miss Asia’s power, soul, desire, fire, dignity and pride for the sake of short-term benefits. It is a warning against selling land to military bases which might cause irreparable losses and falling of a country into the ‘abyss of non-existence’.

The Exhibition Egg-headed on the Time Belt – From the Collective Past to the Individual Present (2008) conveys a strong message about breaking with the collective past, when the virtue of individual style and unconventional and non-conformist views were suppressed for the sake of ideological uniformity, manifested in a hypothetical image of Homo Sovieticus.


This was the time when the newly independent Republics were making their own way and re-evaluating their history to identify national heroes from the past and re-building their own national identity which had been previously forgotten, ground through the heavy ideological machinery of the Soviet period. Zitta points to the black-and-white photos from her family albums to convey the message about ‘mass production’ of egg-headed people that lost their real face, in other words, their individuality. Soviet ideology skilfully channelled via media,  schools, universities, and the workplace, put pressure on everyone to blend in to satisfy preconceptions and moral norms which in effect, suppressed their deeply hidden thoughts, beliefs, and wishes.

A similar message is conveyed by the pumpkin-headed images in the photo collage which tells us about a self-defeating frustrating relationship between individual and collective, conformism and non-conformism, stereotypical and non-conventional. 

The portrayal of the cage as a symbol of non-freedom is used in the installation ‘Simply in the Bird’s Cage’.   The cage reminds the viewer of the saying ‘as a bird in a cage’. Bird in a cage is an obvious clash with the natural order of life with birds flying free in nature. ZITABL uses the visual language of the installation to say that any human being – be it a child or an adult- can only blossom into a happy individual and fully enjoy life when they have the freedom and opportunities to do so.



The installation ‘Prisoner’ continues the ZITABL’s dialogue about the importance of personal freedom in making your own choices and expressing one’s views with no fear and prejudice. The face in the installation ‘Prisoner’ belongs to Ablikim – Zitta’s husband, friend and a soulmate – who brings his passion for music, photography and art into all ZITABL’s creations. Interestingly, Ablikim found an inspiration for this creation in a well-known Pushkin’s poem ‘Prisoner’, a story about a young eagle confined in a dark cage yearning for freedom to fly away with his friend.


Ablikim was born in Alma-Ata into a musical Uyghur family. He has a wide talent of being able to play several instruments, such as Shaman’s drum, Uyghur dap, African drums, Irish and Tai pipe, Indian flute, and many other unconventional for a music scene of Kazakhstan instruments. In the period of 1987-1992, he was an active member of a controversial underground art group called «Green Triangle’, known in Alma-Ata for its devotion to the ideas of a hippie movement and a heavy rock music.

Ablikim is a key drum player in his group called Bugarabu, which specialises in a very exotic music, a mix of folk music of diverse cultural origins with some spiritual overtones and vibrant rhythms which makes their music sound really shamanic and enchanting.


The musical band Bugarabu is a result of Ablikim’s long-standing passion for drums, which he learned from his father. Since childhood, Ablikim fell madly in love with rock-music with the music of Pink Floyd having a special place. This passion towards Pink Floyd went to such an extreme point in his teenage years that in the signature place of his first Passport, he entered ‘Pink Floyd’, for which he was severely punished at that time.


Ablikim demonstrates his original interpretation of the ‘Wall’ by Pink Floyd, where the bricks made of despair, betrayal and hate have been replaced by the bricks symbolising Love. This installation echoes Ablikim’s devotion to the Sufi vision and Sufi’s interpretation of the world.

The theme of Pink Floyd shows up in ZITABL new Exhibition currently taking place in the Central Exhibition Gallery of the Kasteyev State Museum of Arts in Almaty. This Exhibition is a result of ZITABL’s 18 years of experience lived through art, photography, video and music. The Exhibition is called ‘From Hate to Love’ and reflects the art duo’s conceptual vision of the world which should move away from hate to love, from war to peace and eventually to the evolution of public consciousness. ZITABL has made this event very special by combining the art show with music and video performances, poetry declamations and talks, discussions and debates.


The name of the art duo has a small addition this time – ZITABL & AURA – to announce to the world that their young daughter, Aurelia, has joined the family’s creative union.  This young lady, Aurelia has surprisingly developed her own individual style and her own vision of herself and the world around her. Her photo collage called ‘Truth is in the mirrors’ has become one of the key works of the art duo ZITABL.   The collage reflects unfairness and social inequality which affects many children in the globe and not just the ones who live in the Country of the Great Steppe.

Aurelia: Truth is in the mirrors


At the show, ZITABL shows their old and new creations in furtherance of their ongoing comprehension of the world and the role of ordinary individuals on the time belt of the Universe. Zitta presents her new carnival series of works War between Fennel & Cotton-Wool where Love eventually takes over Hate. These series are Zitta’s reaction to the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation started in 2014.


Briefly, this is an allegorical story about the confrontation between the two sides where the image of Cotton-Wool (‘vata’ in Russian) is associated with ‘vatniki’ – a type of people who are still cherishing the socialistic past, strong Russia and the status quo. The image of Fennel (‘ukrop’ in Russian) is associated with pro-Western Ukrainians who want to change the status quo and strive for the freedom to follow their own path.

By using metaphoric language and childlike images, Zitta wishes to turn war into peace and love. Similarly, Zitta’s Red & White series continues the theme of peace and love, as the most powerful driving force of the globe. Her work ‘Reconciliation’ is a call to accept our history containing both dramatic and dignified events as the past and hence move forward!



15The purpose of the Exhibition is also to recognise the 50th Anniversary of Paris events of 1968, when millions of students united in their protest against old establishments and rules, Vietnam War and racial discrimination, suffocating bureaucracy of state structures and a class-oriented society driven by money and consumerism.  The Exhibitors have replicated the banners of the Paris protests with famous slogans of that turbulent time: ‘Structures are for People!’, ‘People are not for Structures!’, ‘It is prohibited to prohibit!’, ‘Forget everything you were taught before! Learn to dream!’, ‘Be a realist – demand impossible!’ It was a social revolution influenced by the neo-Marxian ideas which had brought the previously dominating systems and a monotonous routine of life to a complete stop. Following quite soon after the Great War from 1939-1945, the then new generation were averse to following the steps of their parents and grandparents. They wanted to live their lives according to new values and principles and not the old.


My question is how this new Exhibition of ZITABL & AURA can be related to our current reality? I think the value and purpose of events like that are to make everyone pause, reflect and think for a moment: what is the purpose of my life? What is my place in this society? How am I connected to my family, my country and the Universe? What really matters in life? Do I want to follow in the steps of my parents or other people who are supposed to lead the so-called ‘good life’? Or, do I want to try something different, be bold and brave and brake the old canons and the worn out stereotypes? I suppose everyone has to find his/her own answers and destinations. All I really want to say: it is great for any society to have artists like Zitta and Ablikim, who are not worried being part of the rat’s race. They make us take a pause and reflect on simple values of life and find your inner peace, love, self-realisation and true identity.



I am grateful to Zitta Sultanbayeva for providing a background information and artworks she kindly shared with me for this blog.  I also used some factual data from her book ‘Art-Atmosphere of Alma-Ata: yesterday, today, tomorrow…’ (Almaty, 2016).

April 2018

 Rosa Vercoe


Meeting a famous Uyghur art collector in Almaty

Azat Akimbek is a distinguished expert in art and antiques and a well-known philanthropist in Kazakhstan.  He is renowned for his unique collections of antiques from Central Asian, Caucasian and Russian heritage. Azat holds a special award ‘The Honorary Arts Worker of the Republic of Kazakhstan’.  In 2011, Akimbek was awarded the ‘Barys’ State Order in recognition of his outstanding contribution to promoting arts and cultures of Kazakhstan and Central Asia, together with his generous philanthropic contributions to art projects.

I met Azat Akimbek last summer in his Salon ‘Antiques’ situated in a bustling area of Almaty. Immaculately-dressed and courteous, he offered us tea in a beautiful Uyghur teapot. The two-hour conversation had flown in one moment. I felt blissfully lucky to hear a fascinating story of Azat-aka: a tragedy of being brutally de-rooted from his motherland in Xinjiang (East Turkestan), finding a new life in Kazakhstan and reconnecting with his past and identity through his insatiable passion for art and history

Rosa Vercoe with Azat Akimbek in his Art-Studio in Almaty. Photo credit: Clara Isabaeva, Head of Public & External Relations, A.Kasteyev State Museum of Arts of the Republic of Kazakhstan

Akimbek was born in Kuldja of the East-Turkestan Republic in West China (currently Xinjiang). His origins can be traced back to the tragic history of the Uyghur dynasty of Khakim-Beks established in 1762 by his great-grandfather, Khalzat-khan. Earl Akimbek is the only remaining successor of this ancient aristocratic dynasty. His grandfather, Earl Djakhangir Khakimbek-Khodja (1871-1957), was a hereditary ruler and a vice-president of the East Turkestan Republic in 1944-1951. Following the establishment of the Mao Zedong’s regime, thousands of families had to abandon their homes and flee for their lives. Both his grandfather and father were repressed by the Mao regime in the 1950s. In 1955, in a tender age, Azat had to flee to Kyrgyzstan with his mother and close family. Later, the family settled in Almaty. In spite of turbulent events and dangerous journey, Akimbek’s grandmother managed to keep the family’s ancient Uyghur carpets, jewellery and other valuable familial keepsakes.

Azat’s admiration for the beauty of his grandmother’s gift – the ancient Uyghur jar – gave him an incentive to start collecting Uyghur artefacts. That is how he found the passion of his life – collecting arts and antiques. He used to travel to the most remote corners of the former Soviet Union to collect precious pieces. Some items were abandoned in sheds in the dust until they caught the eye of this expert who could appreciate their value. Opening borders with the SUAR in the 1990s released new opportunities for Akimbek whose links with Xinjiang traders helped to give new life to ancient artefacts from East Turkestan.


11 Коллекция Азата Акимбека Фото Клары Исабаевой Бабушкин кувшин
Photo credit: Clara Isabaeva


To prove his unique ability to recognise the originality of antiques by his eye, Azat had successfully passed a tough exam at the world-famous auction house in Paris, Libert & Gastor, and received a title of its Honorary Member in 2000. Since 2010, Akimbek has been collaborating with the Christie’s Auction House in London. In Europe, he is known as a reputable expert on Central Asian art and antiques.

In the course of 46 years, Azat Akimbek has collected seven collections, including unique pieces of art of Kazakh, Turkmen, Tajik, Uyghur, Uzbek, Caucasian, Russian and Chinese origins (related to a very wide span of time). His most famous collections include 200 Oriental manuscripts of XII- XIX centuries, ethnographic costumes and rare jewellery from Central Asia and Caucasus (XVI – XX centuries), and his collection of vintage armoury that mentioned in the 2010 Kazakhstan Guinness Book of Records. In 1977 – 2016, Azat’s various collections were presented in 70 exhibitions in the CIS as well as in Turkey, Japan, France and Hungary.

Azat is very proud of his Uyghur collection. In 1977, A. Kasteyev State Museum of Arts of the Republic of Kazakhstan hosted his first exhibition demonstrating the beauty and sophistication of the ancient Uyghur workmanship. In 2016, A. Kasteyev State Museum of Arts hosted an exhibition displaying over 1000 exhibits – the most complete and versatile private collection of the Uyghur Applied and Decorative Art in the world. The show was a detailed depiction of a daily routine of an ancient Uyghur peasant displaying his tools, clothing, shoes, house and kitchenware, ornaments, outfits for special occasions and jewellery.

This collection is an outstanding presentation of the Uyghurs’ craftsmanship in East Turkestan, the bustling trade hub in the old net of the Silk Road routes (particularly, Kashgar, Kuldja, Yarkand, Khotan and Turfan).  The region was the object of fascination for European explorers and scholars including Marco Polo. Both Russian and British Empires were competing for power and influence over Central Asia. A number of expeditions led by British, Russian and German explorers were sent to East Turkestan at the end of XIX- beginning of XX century.  First information about Kashgar appeared in British publications in 1860-1870, leading to naming one of the streets in East London Kashgar Road.

First Russian expedition to East Turkestan was led by Sergey Oldenburg in 1909-1910. His materials are held in Hermitage (St Petersburg). Later, a number of Russian diplomats and collectors contributed to this collection. British adventurer and expert on Central Asia, Sir Aurel Stein (1862-1943) carried out four expeditions to West China and Central Asia in the period of 1900 – 1931. Some artefacts brought from his expeditions are held in India and Pakistan. The majority of the Steins’ material is now shared between the British Library, British Museum, and the V&A Museum. Many artefacts, however, are kept in offsite location due to space shortage.

Earl Azat is keen to follow the footsteps of famous art collectors who donated precious collections to their nations – Sir Hans Sloane (his private collection became the founding collection of British Museum in London), the merchant Pavel Tretyakov (the founder of the Russian Art Gallery in Moscow), and The Rothschild Family (that donated their Waddesdon Bequest collection to British Museum). Azat Akimbek cherishes a hope of bequeathing his priceless private collection to the nation of Kazakhstan and establishing a unique Uyghur Museum. Undoubtedly, it would greatly contribute to the preservation of a unique material culture of the Uyghurs and further studies of the diverse cultural heritage of the Silk Road.


I would like to express my gratitude to Clara Isabaeva, Head of Public & External Relations of A. Kasteyev State Museum of Arts of the Republic of Kazakhstan in Almaty and curator of Akimbek’s exhibitions, for providing valuable information, advice and photographs of artworks.